Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Reaching for the tip of perfection

Managing older All Blacks and developing new ones is at the heart of plans to reach the 2015 World Cup with a team at its peak, writes Gregor Paul.

Jerome Kaino. Photo / Getty Images
Jerome Kaino. Photo / Getty Images

It's not in the foreground by any means but coach Steve Hansen has the longer-term goal of making history - he wants his side to become the first in history to win consecutive World Cups and the first All Black team to claim a World Cup overseas.

He also wants them to continue winning tests and he wants to establish his reign as one of the best. For any All Black coach, any group of All Black players, the mantra is always to enhance, to leave things in a better state than they were found.

The next few years, then, present a tricky balancing act for Hansen: he has a world-class rugby side at his disposal but the senior core is ageing. There are nine players already 30 or older and a few more in their late 20s. All of the veterans seem determined to see if they can make it through to the next World Cup. Some, such as Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, are already contracted that far ahead. Others such as Conrad Smith, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock and Ma'a Nonu have recently extended their contracts.

Hansen is both an optimist and a realist, which is why he's supporting them all, but he's conscious there will be casualties along the way. The support is coming in the form of detailed planning to manage workloads.

McCaw will take six months off in 2013. Smith is expected to take the tail end of 2013 off while Carter may enjoy a playing sabbatical at the end of the year and then take a rest period. Others are likely to either have extended breaks and/or be put on sparser training regimes where they take less contact and are able to preserve themselves.

For some, extended rest periods will work. When McCaw missed the first seven weeks of Super Rugby in 2007 as part of the blanket All Black reconditioning window, he reckoned it helped him immeasurably - not so much that year but in 2008, when he felt fresher and fitter than he had since coming into the professional game.

But others will inevitably struggle to recuperate their form or will find the time off didn't make an enormous difference. Woodcock, who returned to Super Rugby late this year, said this week of his sabbatical of sorts: "I think earlier on in the piece I felt the difference. But when you have such a long season, it all blends into one. I did feel it earlier on - the body feels pretty good now so maybe it did work."

Managing the older athletes is one part of the equation: the other is developing the young and ensuring the next generation is ready to emerge or even displace when the time comes. Hansen has blooded new test caps in 2012. Again, like the veterans, some have obvious potential to go the distance; others may fade away or be overtaken by new stars.

The obvious stayers appear to be Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Aaron Smith, Sam Cane and Julian Savea.

"We are fortunate that we have developed nine young guys to a very high level," says Hansen, for whom timing will be key as he tries to merge the new into the old.

It won't be easy. He is close to many of the veterans, whose All Blacks careers have mostly coincided with his own. The culture in the team is strong, the vibe relaxed but focused and Hansen is liked and respected by the players. He'll have to make some tough calls at some stage in the next three years. He'll have to make sure the rising youth doesn't get frustrated by a lack of opportunity, especially if they feel they have supplanted the senior man ahead of them.

"It is an issue that is always there," he says. "You have got people who are great players and good players, but people do come to the end of their careers. You just have to get the timing right and make sure that you have enough balance coming through underneath them because, if you lose them all, then you need to have great players coming through.

"I think we have got the balance right. It is always difficult when you lose someone you have worked with for a long time. But the bottom line is that the team comes first and the individual second. When it is time to go, it is time to go."

- Herald on Sunday

Stats provided by

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 23 Nov 2014 20:21:01 Processing Time: 451ms